Rise (Chapter 3 Part 5)
“The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies,” Da sang. “The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon!”
Jova smiled as Da hummed the old song while he braided her hair. Perhaps a marble warrior’s weave was not so fitting for the occasion, but it was the only braid Da knew how to do.
“The zealots, they guard us, their arms crowned with feathers. With feathers! With feathers! In Moscoleon! Both peasants and lords shall dine together. Together! Together! In Moscoleon!” Da squeezed Jova’s shoulder. “All done now, little Lady. You look beautiful.”
Jova squeezed his hand back. “Thanks, Da.”
She felt Da’s fingers trace her palm. “Your hands are clammy,” he said, softly. “Are you nervous?”
“A little,” Jova admitted. She took a deep breath. “A lot.”
“You shouldn’t be,” said Da, hugging her and rocking her back and forth. “You already did the hard part, and if you’re to be believed you did it on accident.”
“Da, I did do it on-.”
“I know, Jova, I know. I’m just teasing you.” Da stroked her braid. “And there is no such thing as an accident, not here. If the Ladies chose this path for you, then they will guide you safely down it.”
Jova nodded glumly. It was a matter of faith, in the end. All the same…
“I don’t even know what the initiation ceremony will be like,” Jova said. “No one’s telling me. They all say it’s some sort of big secret.”
“Then a secret it shall be,” said Da. “And you will walk into it with your head held high, as proud as the Lady Spring herself. You are brave, my little Lady. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, Da.” Jova sighed. “Is Ma coming back soon?”
“Eventually,” said Da, vaguely. “You know how she gets. She’ll come back with a dead bearcat slung over her shoulder and blood all over her face, but she’ll come back.”
Jova paused, twiddling her thumbs together. “Is she still going to be angry at me?”
“No! No, no, no, Jova, she was never angry with you. She just gets…frustrated, at times.” Da took Jova’s hand as he stood up, and Jova brushed off her coza as she got to her feet. Her stomach lurched as she stood, and she had to rely on her walking stick for support.
It was a small movement: it did not seem as if Da had noticed. Jova straightened and smiled, clicking once to find where the door of the hut was and walking towards it.
“It’s at sun-down, yes?” asked Da, hesitantly. Jova could hear him walking just beside her. “I think you told me, but I suppose this old man’s memory is fading. It is- it is at sun-down, yes?”
“Yes, Da. I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? I mean, just to walk you there…”
Jova put a hand on Da’s wrist. “I’ll be fine, Da. Honestly. Enjoy your holy day! I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Look at you,” said Da, and his voice was husky. “Not even twelve years and more mature than grown-olds twice your age.” He bent down to hug her again, and whispered, “Jova, by each of the Ladies Four, I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Da,” Jova said, and she kissed him on the cheek.
She felt Da stand, and heard him clearing his throat. “Alright, then, little Lady. Go on, shoo! Get it over with! I want you to have your feathers on your arm before your Ma comes back home, alright?”
Jova nodded, and turned to walk down the street. She waited until she heard Da returning to their tenant’s compound before turning the corner, towards Roan’s stables. She had time. There were some things she needed to do.
A chill wind made her shiver, and she turned her ears to the sky. Was that the Lady Fall, whispering an answer to her prayer? Or was it just…the wind?
Jova could not answer these questions, but neither could she help from thinking them. She tapped her way across the Temple Moscoleon, grand city of the Ladies Four, waiting for them to give her a definitive answer.
There was none—not that Jova had been expecting one.
The city was quiet on its holy day. Jova listened, and heard the soft sizzle of peppers and rice, the murmured prayers of the supplicants at the temples, and below it all even the steady trickle of blood on the altar. Jova shivered, and hugged her shoulders. That was a part of Moscoleon Jova had never been able to accept.
Is that what the Ladies demanded for their answers? Sacrifice? Jova felt her hands move unconsciously towards her blindfold. How much more did they want from her? How much sacrifice did the gods demand before they started giving answers?
How much was Jova willing to give?
She walked forward, trying to force the questions out of her head, scratching her chest to get rid of the restless itch stirring inside of it. She would talk to Roan first, then go to Copo’s temple: just putting one foot in front of the other, without worrying about the road ahead.
Just outside Roan’s stables, as she walked the familiar path to the compound, she heard something odd. It sounded like one of Jova and Arim’s sparring matches, the crack and thud of wood on wood. She edged forward cautiously, her walking stick raised just a little bit higher in case she needed it. The wild boys had stopped harassing Roan years ago, but Jova was not so innocent anymore to believe they would disappear forever.
She heard Stel’s hooves cantering across the ground, and Roan’s labored breathing. Her brow furrowed. One animal, one person. There was no one else.
Again, there was a sharp crack. It wasn’t quite the sound of Jova’s walking stick hitting Arim’s spear; there was a snap to it that Jova could not identify, a thinner, keener sound.
Roan shouted and Jova jumped. She had never heard Roan speak so loudly and so harshly before.
“Atoa eri zak das, Raj Mal Azu!” he roared. Snap! Snap! Snap! “Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
He did not seem to be talking to her. Jova relaxed, slipping behind the edge of the door and listening. Perhaps it was not such a good time to talk to Roan, but Jova’s curiosity had been peaked.
Again, Roan shouted. “Gesh toh shira! Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
Rho Hat Pan was Roan’s old name: that much Jova knew. She wondered what the rest of the gibberish meant.
She heard footsteps approaching from the side and, bundled with nerves already, snapped out, hitting whoever approached once on the shoulder and then holding the walking stick to the stranger’s neck.
“You already beat the crap out of me once today,” said Arim, his voice sullen. “There’s no need to do it again.”
Jova lowered her walking stick immediately. “I’m sorry, Arim, I- I…” Jova’s mouth went dry, and her chest clenched. She didn’t know what to say.
“Need me to tell you what the horse freak is doing?” Arim’s voice was low, and not directed at Jova. He sounded both vindictive and exasperated.
“OK,” said Jova, meekly, still trying to find the right words to say.
“He’s practicing against a wooden dummy, with a whip. Long sandman whip, it’s got barbs on the end and everything. And he’s wearing all his Hak Mat Do get-up, even the saddle, even though…” Arim paused. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“Part of your promise to Roan?” asked Jova, trying to smile. “You still scared of him?”
Arim didn’t laugh. He didn’t say a word.
Jova felt her heart sinking. She coughed, searching for something to say. “Look, Arim, about what happened…I’m sorry about…”
“What? What are you sorry about, Jova?” Suddenly, Jova felt rough hands push her to the ground, and heard Arim’s voice rising. “What do you want to apologize for?”
“Arim, please,” Jova hissed. “He’ll hear you!” She made no move to stand up.
“And why shouldn’t he?” Arim walked up to Jova. “What don’t you want him to hear?”
“I don’t know,” said Jova, and despite herself she felt tears behind her blindfold. “I just- I don’t- you’re making a scene, Arim.”
“Like you didn’t? Like you weren’t trying to be the miraculously gifted blind girl whenever we fought?”
“Arim, please,” said Jova, trying to keep her voice steady. “Please, don’t be mad at me.”
She heard Arim pacing around her, followed by a frustrated grunt as he kicked the ground. He began to stomp away, his footfalls heavy beside her. “Arim, wait!” Jova rose to her feet and followed, doing her best to at least jog to keep up.
Jova ran too fast. Her foot caught on something hard, and she tumbled to the ground, skidding on her knees.
She heard Arim’s voice above her, but as far as she could tell he made no move to help her up. “Well, Jova? I’m waiting.”
“It- it was an accident. I can’t convince Copo- the pontiff, I mean- otherwise. You’ll get a second chance, Arim. I promise!” Jova stood shakily. “I’ll tell him there’s someone else. I’ll put in a good word!”
“Oh, you’ll put in a good word.”
Jova didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything else to say.
“You know, if it wasn’t for me, you would have never been able to fight like that. I gave you that practice! I did that! ME!” Arim’s voice was shaking. “Did you have to take it from me? Don’t you have enough already?”
Jova’s mouth opened in surprise. “What?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. You’ve got everything. You and your cushy little job, your three meals a day. You’ve never been scared of going hungry, and you’ve got masters to watch out for you but they let you walk free. You’ve got people who act like your mom and dad, Jova, or at least as close as you’re going to get in this shithole we live in.” Arim pushed her again, as if daring her to fight back. “That was my one chance! You promised me, Jova! You promised I would be able to have that good of a life!”
“I do,” breathed Jova. “I still promise. I’ll keep my promise. That’s what friends do.”
Arim’s voice was low and full of contempt. “You don’t have friends. Just people who use you and pity you. Can’t you see that, Jova?”
Jova opened and closed her mouth, and the tears started to stain her blindfold. She took a deep breath, and grabbed the knot that was tied around the back of her head. She pulled it loose.
“No, Arim,” she said, slowly, the cloth limp in her hand as cold air rushed around her face. “I can’t see.”
“You freak,” whispered Arim, and he ran. Jova made no move to follow him. There was nothing to say to him even if she did.
She tucked the walking stick under her arm and bowed her head to re-do the knot, behind her ears and snugly over her face, just like Ma always did it. She bumped into a few things on the road as she walked, but honestly Jova did not care. She tied the blindfold tightly, so tight that it hurt.
“I don’t have everything, Arim,” she muttered, under her breath. “I might have a job and parents, but you have your eyes.” She kicked the ground, running her fingers through her hair, wishing she had been able to think fast enough to talk back to the wild boy. Vindictive anger boiled inside of her as she walked.
Da’s braid had come a little loose in the fall. Jova did her best to weave it back into place as she walked to Copo’s temple.
The pontiff was waiting for her. “Had a bit of a tumble, did we?” said Copo, as Jova made her way down the street.
Jova blushed. She felt at once embarrassed and annoyed.
“Ah, children,” said Copo, putting a hand on Jova’s back and ushering her inside the cool, musty interior of the building. “Not to worry, sweet one, the process will be quick.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jova. “I would think that something so important would be…bigger.” Her voice echoed off of the walls of the high-ceilinged temple. As far as she could tell, she and Copo were alone.
“You’ve earned your first feather in the selection, Jova,” said Copo, leading her on up to a flight of steps. Jova took them carefully. “But just the one. As such, it is rather a small affair, although insignificant? Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say that. When you earn your second and third feathers, though, then you shall have an audience. And should you earn your fourth feather, which you very well might, oh, yes, you would be graced by the presence of the Holy Keep herself.”
“But for now? For the first feather?”
“Only I shall be in attendance, for even the Lady Spring knows that only by recognizing our humble beginnings may we know how far we have risen,” said Copo, stroking Jova’s hair. “What a pretty braid! Did you do it yourself?”
“My- a friend helped,” said Jova. She felt dirty for lying in a temple, but hoped that the Lady Fall would forgive her the one secret.
“It is good to have friends,” said Copo, sagely.
“Yes,” said Jova, softly. “It is.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Copo opened the door for Jova as the stairs leveled out, and she curtsied. “Thank you, sir,” she muttered, as she walked inside.
“So cultured, for a free girl,” said Copo, like a mother goosehen clucking over her brood. “Kneel here, go on. Mind your knees now, and just…relax. There is very little you will have to do. You have already proven yourself.”
Jova knelt, slowly, as she heard the low hum and the soft hiss of summer flies setting the torches alight. She heard the clatter of tabula, and Copo muttering to himself as the scent of burning incense began to drift to Jova’s nostrils.
Copo began to sing, circling her by the sound of it. His voice warbled and fluctuated, and he sounded like Roan and his funny foreign language, although his voice changed so much that Jova was having difficulty understanding what he was saying.
She gave up, letting the sound wash over her as she breathed deep the smoking incense. It stung her nostrils and had an acrid, bitter taste, but Jova got used to it very quickly. She thought of the Lady Fall, and made the circle on her forehead very quickly.
Of all the Ladies Four, she wanted to hear most from the goddess of secrets.
Copo’s chant continued, a low, steady hum that surrounded Jova and seemed to worm its way into her bones. She felt her whole body vibrating to the tune, and though she could see nothing of the room a pale blur filled her mind.
It had been so long since she had thought that way- in colors, and shapes. The presence of those thoughts felt almost alien to her.
And suddenly, Copo stopped, and the whispering images disappeared.
“I would show it to most,” said Copo. “But for now you will be allowed to hold it.”
Jova held out her hands, and took something hard, and round. Her fingers traced it, wondering what it might be. And then, her heart lurched.
It was a tabula.
As tabula went, it was the same size as the last one she had held in that glade so long ago, although now her hands had grown to the point that it could fit easily in one palm. She felt, in the center, a roughly hewn hole, big enough for her index finger to slip through. It was crudely cut, hacked and carved through the center.
“As a soldier of the temple, nay, soldier of the gods, you must open yourself in every way you can to the Ladies Four,” said the pontiff, his voice deep and booming.
Jova felt her stomach curl in revulsion at the idea. To cut through someone’s tabula like that felt like some horrid act of self-mutilation, as if someone had drilled through their own skull or as if…well, as if someone had gouged out their own eyes.
Copo took the tabula from her hand gently, and then Jova realized with a sinking feeling what was coming next. She broke into a cold sweat, and it wasn’t because of the burning incense or the small fires around her. What was she going to say? What was she going to do?
She didn’t know whether she should run or stay. She didn’t know whether to stop the ceremony now or let it go for as long as possible. She didn’t know what to do, and so, as Copo began to speak again, she did the only thing she could do. She prayed.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Posted on October 27, 2013, in 3.05, Chapter 3 (Rise & Fall) and tagged adventure, Arim, Copo, creative writing, Ell, fantasy, Jova, novel, original characters, Roan, Stel, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.